While reflecting on the inauguration and seeing Secretary Napolitano and Admiral Allen behind President Obama during the swearing in ceremony, I picked back up my copy of Edward Alden’s terrific new book, The Closing of the American Border, and mused how it should be required reading for those assuming new positions of responsibility for homeland security this week.
Exhaustively researched and brilliantly penned, this page-turner provides a thorough account of the country’s border policies since 9/11. This important book is the unofficial history of how overnight border security transitioned from an almost afterthought to a bureaucratic tug of war, sometimes carried out in the oval office, between “the cops” and “the technocrats” struggling to balance protecting the country with civil liberties in a new age of counter-terrorism.
Unlike many serious policy books, The Closing of the American Border is actually a terrific read, written with a combination of serious analysis and gut wrenching anecdotes of detained immigrants whose only crime was their place of birth, unlucky timing, and desire to invest their considerable talents in the United States. The book tells harrowing stories of lives destroyed after being snared in blunt security initiatives aimed at foiling the next major attack. Although, while it is impossible to prove a counterfactual why there hasn’t been another terrorist incident, the book details how the closing of the American border has come with considerable cost to America’s image abroad and economic competitiveness at home.
Immigrants, whose sweat literally and figuratively built America, have run up against an administrative buzz saw from a government still reeling from Al Queda’s surprise attack. As the book chronicles, Bush administration officials in a politically charged and risk adverse environment have been at almost every corner willing to sacrifice efficiency and open borders for tighter, if imperfect, border security. The personal stories of individual disaster the book relays put human faces on what often just seem like steely, impersonal policy decisions. The book reads like a combination of the Warren Report and a reality TV series turned horror show.
New DHS officials, incoming National Security Council staff, and citizens interested in the perennial tensions between freedom and security should carefully read The Closing of the American Border and keep it near their desks. This book provides critical strategic lessons gleaned from seven years of hindsight for Americans and their leaders. Today, we witnessed the first presidential transition since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The policy choices to protect America remain difficult ones, and as this book makes clear, there is still much work to be done.